Feast of the Presentation: Jesus the True Priest

van der weyden presentationMAL 3:1-4; PS 24: 7, 8, 9, 10; HEB 2:14-18; LK 2:22-40 

This Sunday falls on February 2, so we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the fourth joyful mystery of the rosary – and one of the more obscure ones. This feast teaches us two things: first, Jesus comes to fulfill the Old Testament; and second, it is precisely in that way that he comes very close to us.

“Suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek.” The scene is the temple in Jerusalem. The faithful of Israel – never more than a remnant: not all of Israel, but the faithful are true Israelites – await the Lord, they long for “the messenger of the covenant,” the fulfiller of the Old Testament. (Covenant and testament translate the same word.)

Simeon “was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel.” The “prophetess” Anna is one of the most obscure characters in the Bible – why is she in the story? But we know she is “of the tribe of Asher,” a true Israelite, and “she never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.” True Israelites, joyfully seeking God in his temple.

Mary and Joseph are true Israelites, too. “When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord.” They did everything “in according with the dictate in the law of the Lord”; at the end of the story, they returned to Nazareth “when they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord.” Faithful Israelites, fulfilling the law of the Temple.


These are poor people. The law in question says, “if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Lev. 12:8). Mary, of course, brings the true lamb, the richest sacrifice of all – but in material things, she is very poor. Notice the gentleness of the Law. It is not burdensome.

We sometimes have an image of this horrible law of the Old Testament. But the Jews who lived it did not find it horrible. They prayed, “The law of the LORD is perfect . . . . The jugments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps. 19). Sometime flip open the endless Psalm 119: every single verse (there are 176 verses) extols the goodness, the sweetness of God’s law.

The “purification” itself is a mercy. My wife and I appreciate this more every time we have a baby. After the birth of a baby, the woman was “unclean.” People assume this is a condemnation, a put down: women are yucky. But that isn’t what it says. “Unclean” simply means “she shall not come into the sanctuary” (Lev. 12:4). It means she should stay home from church, so to speak.

But that is the same thing our midwives tell us: not because they hate women, but because they love them, and respect them, and want to care for them. What we are talking about is an automatic dispensation for new mothers: stay home! Recover!

Once she is recovered, she and her husband make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her reappearance is celebrated. She doesn’t just show up at synagogue one day. She is given a special ceremony.


And here is the most important thing. The new father and mother are given something to do. Far from unclean, they have a priestly task. Think of how powerful it would be, to bring your new baby, not just to your home parish (though that’s pretty exciting, too), but to the great temple in Jerusalem, to offer up a true sacrifice.

This is the point. The Law and the Temple provided for a very human religion, a religion that blesses the key moments of human life, a religion that binds together a people (so that these serendipitous meetings, like that of Mary and Joseph with Anna and Simeon are the norm), and makes allowance for human weakness while still allowing you real access to true worship. How beautiful is the Law of the Lord!

Jesus comes into that Law. He expands it to all people. In Simeon’s words, “the light for revelation to the Gentiles” is “the glory of his people Israel.” He does not destroy that very human religion, but invites us all into it. A truly merciful, inclusive high priest.


What human parts of our religion most excite you?

Feast of the Holy Family

fra angelico nativitySIR 3:2-6, 12-14; PS 128: 1-2, 3, 4-5; COL 3:12-21, MT 2:13-15, 19-23

Jesus is God Incarnate, the Savior, the Redeemer. Mary is Mother of God, guarantor of the Incarnation; and Immaculate Conception, the perfect model of holiness. But the Sunday within the octave of Christmas calls us to look more broadly, to the Holy Family: to include poor St. Joseph. Remarkably, the readings show us how important Joseph is for a true understanding of Christianity.


It has been said that the key to St. Paul’s theology is the Church. On the road to Damascus, Jesus speaks to him as identified with the members of his Church: “why are you persecuting me?” And woven constantly through Paul’s letters is the theology of the Body of Christ. For Paul, Jesus is not just a historic figure, but the cosmic “head of the body, the Church” (Col. 1:18). To be a Christian, meanwhile, is precisely to be part of Christ’s body: pulsing with his Spirit, united to the head and the members. Once you are alert to this theme in Paul, you see it is everywhere.

It is, for example, in our feast day’s reading from Colossians. This is one of the infamous readings where the Church gives us a censorship option. In this Sunday’s reading, as also in Ephesians 5, Paul gives a general discussion of love within the Church, then particularizes it within familial relationships. We are given the option to ignore what Paul says about family – on the feast of the Holy Family! – because it is not politically correct. But it is fabulous.

“Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” – as members of Christ! – “heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.” In short, live as members of Christ: “let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body.”

This is the heart of Paul’s moral teaching: to live as members of Christ’s body, pulsing with his heart, his spirit. It is the heart of his teaching on the family, too. Today people often get this upside down, and think of the Church in terms of family. To the contrary, Paul teaches us to think of the family in terms of Church. The family is the most immediate, ordinary place where we live the radical love of the Body of Christ.

Thus after discussing this general attitude of Christian love, Paul gives a brief teaching on family relationships: whatever is right in wifely submission and husbandly leadership, as also in parental authority and childly obedience, must be suffused with Christian love. Paul actually doesn’t teach about obedience – he just assumes we understand that natural dynamic; what he teaches is that this obedience must be penetrated with the love of the Church. Nature is permeated with grace, natural authority with Christian love. The family must be the first place where we live the love that is the Church.


Our first reading, from Sirach, particularizes this as it relates to the father Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_Projectof the family. “God sets a father in authority over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons.” Whereas Paul merely assumes these familial relationships, and suffuses them with his theology of the Church, the Old Testament is chock full of wisdom about family, especially in the wisdom literature: Proverbs, Sirach, etc. The teaching is very homely. We live out charity by the way we relate to one another.

This is the true meaning of the Holy Family. Jesus came into a family. He showed that love is not just vague and general. The love of Christ is what we live out when children honor their parents – and parents honor their children. When wives and husbands live as wives and husbands ought (a relationship the Bible treats not in terms of sex, but of household order). Jesus is obedient to his parents – “he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them” (Luke 2:51) – precisely to show that his love enters into these particulars, including the natural dynamics of authority.


And then the Gospel just gives us the story of the leadership of Joseph, caring for his family as they flee from Herod. Joseph is not the star of the Holy Family. He is not the Redeemer, not even the Mother of God. He is just an ordinary father. But his authority within the Holy Family is nonetheless key to the Gospel, because it shows that what Jesus redeems is ordinary life, the natural relationships of parent-child, husband-wife – and shopkeeper-customer, neighbor-neighbor, and everything else. That is where the love of Christ shines forth. The Gospel radiates in the person of St. Joseph.

What does Joseph tell you about your life?

(Not so) Silent Night

caravaggio nativityIt is perhaps time for my annual self-help Christmas pep talk.

For those of us with children – especially large broods of small children – one of the great ironies of the Church’s liturgical year is the singing of Silent Night at Christmas Eve Mass. The liturgy is beautiful. The world in silent stillness waits – to hear angels sing.

A favorite (if somewhat silly) memory of mine is one Advent before Christmas. I went to an evening of recollection at a very big, beautiful church. Afterwards, somehow, I had the dark sanctuary for myself. I pulled out a hymnal and hummed “It came upon a midnight clear.” The silent stillness. The beauty. The waiting. The expectation. The angels!

I seriously discerned religious life. I always imagine how beautiful the Christmas season could be celebrated in a monastery.

The last week of Advent has the beautiful and mysterious O Antiphons at Vespers: awesome food for meditation.

Christmas itself has four Masses: the Vigil, technically before Vespers, with Matthew’s reading about St. Joseph; then after Vespers the rubrics say, “On the Nativity of the Lord all Priests may celebrate or concelebrate three Masses, provided the Masses are celebrated at their proper times”: at midnight, the Gospel of the angels; at dawn, the shepherds come to the manger; during the day, John’s Prologue. Any of these is worth a full day of recollection.

Holy Family on the First Sunday; Mary on the octave; Epiphany on the twelfth day. The fabulous juxtaposion of St. Stephen, the first martyr, the day after Christmas; then St. John, the beloved disciple, the Apostle of love, whose amazing and profound First Letter gives the readings for the Christmas season; then the Holy Innocents. Oh, what liturgy!


ACHR1052-dancing-around-tree_800pBut of course the irony is that this is not how we with families live the Christmas season. I’m sure I could do better. But one of the great realizations of family life is that we aren’t as good as we thought. Daily Mass and a pretty abundant daily prayer schedule, including lots of liturgy, was a no-brainer before I had kids – when it was easy. When it became difficult . . . a lot of it slipped. We are not as strong as we think we are.

But even apart from my weaknesses, how could I do it all? During Advent we try to light candles and do readings at dinner. In theory we pray Evening Prayer, with special Advent devotions to St. Joseph, as we prepare for the coming of Christ. In practice . . . gosh, the little boys are tired, bedtime takes a long time, everyone moves slowly. As for Morning Prayer and daily Mass . . . long gone, at least in our family life. I can pull off some of it, but for my wife, always covered in kids, it’s even harder.

Christmas Eve is wonderul: but when we sing Silent Night, usually one of my kids is crying, or throwing up. We always ponder doing Mass both Christmas Eve and Morning – but gave up after, with just one child (easy!) we had a diaper blowout on the way to morning Mass.

This year we have non-Church-going family in town. What should we do, ditch them, so we can have more liturgy?

And the twelve days, beautiful as they are, get largely covered in visiting family.


Two quick points:

First, we can live the liturgy at a distance. We can poke our heads in here and there, and do our best to remember it. Later in the year maybe we will have some time to pray over the things we didn’t have time to pray over while taking care of the kids. No, my Christmas Eve is not a Silent Night. But both that night, and throughout the year, at quieter moments, I can meditate on the world in silent stillness waiting. We can live the liturgy at a distance. In fact, we’re supposed to: what we meditate in these days is supposed to come with us anyway. So let’s bring it with us. Yes, let’s imagine how cool monastic liturgy would be!

Second, family is part of the liturgy, too. The monks and nuns who get to experience the liturgy in its fullness cannot experience it in its fullness unless, just as we follow their liturgy at a distance, so too they follow our families at a distance.

Because Christmas is all about Jesus coming as a child, Jesus coming into the love of family, Jesus embracing the fullness of human life and relationships. We live our own part of the Christmas liturgy, in our not-so-silent nights.

That’s why we read First John in the Christmas season anyway.

He that loves not his brother abides in death (1 John 3:14).

If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from him, That he who loves God love his brother also (1 John 4:20-21).


How do you reconcile liturgy and family during the Christmas season?

Pastoral Care of Families

The Pope has called an “extraordinary” (in other words, short-notice) “synod of bishops” (in other words, a selection of bishops from around the world to advise him) for next October to discuss “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”  What a wonderful, important discussion to have!

A nice side benefit of such an initiative is that we at the grassroots can do our own brainstorming about the pastoral care of families.  Even if our ideas never make it into a papal document, it can do us a lot of good to think about what might be helpful.

Yesterday I read an excellent short piece on this topic by Micah Murphy at Truth and Charity.  I don’t know him, or this Web site, but what I really appreciate about Murphy’s approach is his joining of what is most deep and essential with really practical thinking.  Things like homilies encouraging families to “slow down and embrace silence” (well, my four-year-old is screaming at the moment, but I know what he means); lots more confession times; and the importance of Masses for whole families, not breaking families up into age groups.  Essential but practical.  Also so important: creating communities of families — and he has very concrete ideas for how to do this.

I like, too, that Murphy has links to other pieces where he has been writing about concrete pastoral strategies.  I especially like his “5 Catechetical Tips for Reaching the Most Important Audience.”  And his writing style is pleasant, funny, and positive.

We could do with a lot more of this pastoral kind of thinking.  I encourage you to check out his piece.